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February 23, 2023

Peak People

by a past peak person.

Peak oil, they said, was coming. Instead fracking was invented and oil has become more abundant. Peak food, Malthus instructed us in 1798, would shortly lead to global starvation and other catastrophes. World population then was around one billion; it is now eight billion and much better fed than in Malthus’ day. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s, 65 million Americans would die of starvation in the 1980s, and that England would disappear by 2000. None of that happened.

All these predictions were based on population exploding into catastrophe.

Now we have a different problem. We’re running out of people. The UN forecasts world population will peak in the 2080s and then decline. Much of the population growth between now and then is because of longer life spans. We already have plenty of geezers like me and we’ll have even more; but the supply of younger more productive people, whom we geezers need to take care of us both financially and physically, is already in decline.

We’re already in trouble! Nurses are in critically short supply and the problem is getting worse. Ditto daycare workers. In Vermont there aren’t enough people to deliver the mail. In general and everywhere in the developed world, there are shortages of what we used to call blue and pink collar workers, people who do things with their hands besides click a mouse, people in jobs which are very hard to automate. Even if fertility increases again, it’ll take several generations for population growth to resume.

Given the imminence of peak people, most of our assumptions about the future are wrong. Here are some new speculations:

The age of abundance is coming. It will be increasingly easy to provide sustainable and abundant everything for a declining population even when living standards continue to rise. Recycling will provide an increasing share of raw materials as demand declines. For example, when less cars are needed for each successive generation, the lithium in old batteries will be more than enough to make new ones without mining more of the rare metal.

Climate change is a short-term problem. Doomsday climate scenarios, just like the apocalyptic food forecasts of Malthus and Ehrlich, are based on the false assumption of the population balloon inflating until it pops. Not happening. Short and medium mitigation for rising seas and higher temperature will be sufficient until the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stabilizes. As less cropland is needed and expanding forests take CO2 out of the air, the next century may worry about global cooling. Note: there is also a chance that we have over-estimated human effect on global warming and that it will continue or accelerate for non-anthropogenic reasons.

“Creating jobs” will cease being a political raison d'être. It’s workers we need, not unfilled jobs.

We’ll pay a bounty to immigrants.

Workfare will have a new vogue.

Wages will shift to reward hands-on jobs richly.  We’re not short of white-collar workers except those with special skills like doctors, engineers, and (for now, at least) computer programmers. Work from home, which has often meant not working very hard at home, has shown us that we probably had far too many white-collar workers to begin with. Artificial intelligence can substitute for many knowledge workers. Want to make money, learn a skill.

There will be a significant transition problem because of the imbalance between retirees and workers. Public assistance will have to be limited to the indigent. We geezers who can afford it will have to part with wealth to get care from a shrinking workforce; heirs beware.

College as we know it will disappear. Takes too many productive years out of the workforce; doesn’t teach useful skills. Career-long learning, however, will be a necessity in a fast-changing world.

Real estate won’t dependably increase in value.

What else? I’m probably missing the most important consequences of peak people; it’s hard to imagine a world turned upside down.

See also:

Malthus Was Very Wrong

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Why Paul Ehrlich got everything wrong (by Noah Smith)

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